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Awkward moments for Xi in ‘mother of parliaments’

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a Guard of Honour on Horseguards Parade during the Official Ceremonial Welcome for the Chinese State Visit on October 20, 2015 in London, England.
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Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a Guard of Honour on Horseguards Parade during the Official Ceremonial Welcome for the Chinese State Visit on October 20, 2015 in London, England.

President Xi Jinping began his four-day state visit to London amid carefully choreographed attempts to minimise public dissent over China's human rights record. It was never going to last.

David Cameron wants to deal with awkward issues such as Tibet and democracy behind closed doors, while Chinese officials ensured that protesters were hugely outnumbered by pro-Beijing supporters along The Mall, Britain's main ceremonial thoroughfare.

But this deference to Mr Xi has upset many MPs. Paul Flynn, a veteran Labour MP remarked that Britain was behaving "like a supplicant fawning spaniel that licks the hand that beats it."

Among those most annoyed by the British posture towards China was John Bercow, the House of Commons Speaker, whose irritation with what he sees as Mr Cameron's grand kowtow became highly visible on Tuesday.

The first signs of Mr Bercow's annoyance came in the morning as he chaired a session of the Commons, when one MP raised next month's visit to London by Narendra Modi, India's prime minister.

Mr Bercow, Britain's most important "commoner" and representative of the chamber to the Queen said pointedly: "And of course the Indian prime minister is the representative of a great democracy."

By the time Mr Xi arrived at Westminster in the afternoon to address MPs and peers in the gilded splendour of the Royal Gallery, Mr Bercow was in no mood for diplomatic niceties.

Welcoming the Chinese president, Mr Bercow recalled how parliament had recently welcomed four Asian leaders but only found time to mention one of them: Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi.

As David Cameron glowered from the audience and Mr Xi watched with his features set in stone, Mr Bercow proclaimed that the Burmese politician was "an international symbol of the innate human right of freedom".

Mr Bercow's speech then moved on to remarks about his guest's economic and social plan interspersed with ostensibly friendly remarks such as: "The world will be watching."

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Mr Xi's speech was brief and uncontroversial to the point of blandness. "It was perfect," said one senior British Foreign Office official. "There was absolutely no content to it whatsoever."

That was not entirely true, but it was always going to be an awkward task for a Chinese president to address a parliament which takes its democracy extremely seriously.

Undaunted, Mr Xi ventured into a bit of one-upmanship. Although he said Westminster was the "oldest parliament in the world" he noted that China had started codifying laws 2,000 years ago.

He drew comparisons between the British system that placed power in the hands of people and operated under the rule of law with China's own model of "socialist law-based government with Chinese features".

The comparisons may not be exact. Some MPs noted that the Magna Carta — the 800-year-old charter often seen as a foundation of western democracy — was recently sent to China but a public exhibition at a Beijing university was cancelled at the last minute.

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Mr Xi spoke warmly of the new relationship China enjoys with Britain, which he said was reaching "a new height" based on "mutual understanding, support and friendship".

From Mr Cameron's point of view, perhaps the president's most important comment was his public endorsement of the City of London: "The UK is the leading offshore trading centre outside Hong Kong."

With Mr Xi due to address a financial services audience in London on Wednesday, this was the confirmation Mr Cameron was seeking that China will develop London as a global renminbi hub.

Otherwise Mr Xi's comments were a pot pourri of diplomatic courtesies, drawing on quotes from Shakespeare and Francis Bacon and recalling the shared endeavours of British and Chinese troops on the Normandy beaches.

Sitting alongside Mr Cameron throughout the occasion was Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour opposition, limbering up for his own meeting with Mr Xi at which he had promised to raise human rights.

Mr Cameron and Mr Corbyn could be seen talking intensely, the body language suggesting that the prime minister was not altogether impressed by the Labour leader's attitude towards the new "golden era" in UK-China relations.